Countless farms and forests straddle US-422, leaving little to the imagination of a six year old in the pre-video game days when all a child could do was count the street signs as she waited anxiously for her mother’s voice to proclaim: “We’re here.” Then, just as those words were spoken, like a lighthouse calling the girl forward, the white tip of a tower became visible from behind the trees, the American flag at the top blowing in the wind as if waving hello. Soon, as the trees on the right side of the road thinned, lights and glimpses of color could be spotted until finally the view opened up completely and there stood Geauga Lake Amusement Park in all its glory.
Now, over a decade later, I found myself once again waiting with anticipation as the car took me closer to the park of my childhood. This time though it was me at the wheel and my friend, Dana, looking around for any signs of the park ahead. This had been a trip I’d been thinking of for months, and I was nervous. About what though, I couldn’t place.
As I turned onto Aurora Road, I knew we were getting close, blue signs with white arrows reading “Geauga Lake” popped up every now and again despite the park having been shut down for almost a decade. Our eyes scanned the horizon, and then, without warning, the trees became fence, and just over the metal there rested the track of the Big Dipper, faded a dusty brown. Then, within an instant, the roller-coaster vanished behind the fence again and away from our sight. There one moment and then gone the next, I couldn’t help but compare my quick glimpse of the coaster to the park itself.
But the park had lasted more than a moment. It had lasted for many moments for many people, myself included. What began as a simple railroad depot in 1856 gradually grew into the largest amusement park in the world and during its 150 years of existence it stood as the backdrop to a countless number of family memories.
Often times the best memories of someone’s time at an amusement park stem from childhood. For a child, a day at an amusement park is a day of unlimited possibilities and everything is a source of fun and excitement. The playful shoving of elbows into each other’s sides on the scrambler, the hiccup of your stomach as you rode over each hill on the giant slide – small delights and thrills prepping kids for the big leagues as they awaited for the chance to attain the bravery (and height) to tackle some of the more intense rides. And as we grow, these memories become preserved, hidden away until the creaking of a wooden roller-coaster or the smell of kettle corn smacks us in the face, and suddenly we’re transported back, wondering when exactly it was we left in the first place. Lifetime park-goers, such as Dina Shimandle of Bedford Heights who now works at the Target that sits beside the empty land that once was Geauga Lake, remember fondly their first days at the park. “When you’re that young…the park, even back then, just seemed so big,” says Dina.
Big and indestructible. What could possibly topple acres of steel giants bolted to the ground? Even as a child this was a thought I’d always consider, for ever since I can remember amusement parks have always sent a shiver of terror through me. Not out of anticipation for their death-defying rides either but simply from their sheer design. Nothing makes the hairs on my arm rise quicker than the silhouette of metal hills over a hundred feet tall standing against the horizon. Too massive and too alive they always just appeared to me as these climax points destined to eventually collapse – for something to eventually go wrong.
Is it odd that these places designed for joy seemed the easiest for me to picture as ruined? Or was this just me being pessimistic and skeptical at how genuine these places really were? As I walked along the fence of Geauga Lake though with Dana at my side, I could see that my instinct had been a premonition that had come true. Maneuvering through tall weeds with burs that clung to our clothes we found what we believed to be an old loading dock, graffiti marking the inside of it with the word “Gut.”
It was too appropriate.
The dock created a small hill that we climbed up, and although we couldn’t see the whole expanse of the park, gutted was definitely an accurate description. As we drove around, the vastness of the empty parking lot still adorning the street signs that directed cars to the proper highway exit shocked us. Even the pale blue and brick entry gate, which can be seen from the road, has had the top of it removed, its pieces remaining like ruins of a past civilization. But it was no alien invasion or zombie apocalypse that devastated Geauga Lake – just massive debt coupled with a loss of identity.
By 2001 and under the management of Six Flags, Geauga Lake was growing at an exponential rate. It began to forsake the old-fashioned luster it had always emitted, losing sight of its roots – of the family demographic that had given it its popularity in the first place. Images of Looney Tunes and Superheroes began replacing brochure photos of families laughing together, the price of admission began to rise, costing some up to half a month’s paycheck, and in a desperation to cover as much of the park in a day as possible, families began rushing from one ride to the next, the quality time in between being what got cut out. As the park grew bigger and the intensity of the rides increased, the park began to lose what had attracted families to it in the first place.
By 2004, Six Flags had acquired substantial debt and selling the park became their best option. In swoops Cedar Fair, the owner of Geauga Lake’s long-time competition, Cedar Point. At first, many became excited and hopeful about this new alliance between the two super-parks, Cedar Fair boasting their commitment to reviving the “family-friendly” tone of the park. But whether they succeeded with this…Geauga Lake’s eventual fate is what answers that.
“I saw it coming. In hindsight it was always just a feeling, but I swore back then that I knew the end was coming,” says Alex Temple of Solon. “I remember going on Grizzly Run all the time as a kid and how wet you would get and how strong the rapids were. And then one day I’m riding it and some of the waterfalls are turned off and the rapids aren’t nearly as powerful. It may have been in my imagination, but that was when I knew the park was going downhill.”
By 2007, Cedar Fair also found themselves dragged down by debt, making the decision to shut down Geauga Lake permanently, closing its gates forever on September 21, 2007.
Today if you mention Geauga Lake to those who’d experienced it personally, you’ll typically find yourself met with a lot of emotion: anger, grief, at times even tears. But why? What made this amusement park such a big deal to myself and so many others? For, when a video of the now abandoned park came across my Facebook newsfeed a year ago, I found myself struck by shock as well. The images of my childhood playground chilled me through, and I replayed it over and over again unable to comprehend what I was seeing. Half the park’s concrete is covered with weeds and bushes spurting out between cracks in the foundation, spreading like an infection to every area of the park, entangling themselves even within the tracks of the Big Dipper as if claiming the manmade structure for the wild. Dark impressions on the ground serve as the only memorial to past rides and food stands. It’s post-apocalyptic – a portal into what our world would probably resemble if all life just suddenly vanished. The vibrant, buzzing park that had been so alive in my childhood and was preserved as such in my memories was now dead before my eyes. This may have been the reason why I was so nervous to travel back to the park after so many years of being away. It had been preserved in my memory – ideal and thriving with laughter, and I was afraid that returning would take this image away, turning my memories of color into a bleak landscape.
But that was a ridiculous thought.
Our brains aren’t wired so that one memory of a place replaces another, but instead it’s our memories that enhance what we see. That’s the great thing about nostalgia. It pulls forgotten smells, tastes, and sounds out of our subconscious to reanimate a moment that for some reason rings important to us. Psychologists have found that nostalgia, in the way it often brightens the past of a person, offers a, “greater sense of continuity and meaning to our lives,” connecting events of the past to present experiences and linking them together within our minds. It’s 3D for our memories which is possibly why we find it so entrancing.
Simpler, easier, happier – aren’t these the words often used to describe the past? And this is how Geauga Lake is remembered. People don’t recall the hot, July sun burning their skin, but instead remember how good the water felt when they rode the Grizzly Run ride. They don’t remember sibling fights but instead recall the smiles on kids’ faces as they whirled around on the Yo-Yo as mom snapped pictures. Geauga Lake created an immeasurable number of memories during its existence, and despite its closing this is how the park continues to survive – in the people who embraced it. Renee, a local who lives near the park, says that her son used to work at the photo booth on the Sea World side and that today he works as a professional photographer. Corey Shaffer, an employee at Cedar Point, asserts that he would never have the love he does for amusement parks if it weren’t for his time at Geauga Lake. Even Funtime Inc. era mascots, Geauga Dog and Dandelion, continue to make appearances together in the public to keep the spirit and memories of Geauga Lake alive. The park instilled a passion in its patrons that does not easily die with the slapping on of a “keep out” sign. Geauga Lake enthusiasts span the Midwest, and in Northeast Ohio at least, it’s difficult to find someone who hasn’t heard of the park and even more difficult to find one amongst them who wasn’t proud of the park’s existence.
It’s also interesting to note what it is that people remember. Yes, almost anyone could tell you about the Big Dipper or the carousel, but it’s the details people bring up that make the park come alive again. Small things like the smooth, sanded feel of the wooden railings that led to the Beaver Land Mine Ride or a friend buying a mini, glass unicorn out of one of the souvenir shops. These may seem insignificant, but if after years of living and having other memories piled on top of them, there must be some reason they’re still able to be recalled - some emotion strong enough to keep them buzzing inside of us.
One of the most vivid memories I have of Geauga Lake is entering the park. But what I remember most wasn’t the huge clock-tower entrance or even the sound of the people screaming in delight as they soared into the sky on the tracks of the Superman Ultimate Escape. Instead, it was the lone oil well that sat at the edge of the parking lot, just to the left of Geauga Lake’s entrance. The rides, restaurants, and even color schemes of the park inside always were changing, but this structure was one thing that was always there. It was a constant.
I remember believing that well was what kept the entire amusement park running. That if even for a second it ceased in its steady teeter-tottering up and down, then the rides in the park would shut down, the lights would go out, and Geauga Lake would turn off like a light switch. I don’t have a clue where this crazy notion came from, but looking back it’s not too far off from the truth. All amusement parks rely on business to stay open, but as Geauga Lake grew and grew, it became even more desperate to bring in the business its park was designed to attract. The park was stretched to its limits, calling for a crowd that just wasn’t within hearing distance.
On one of our last drives around the park, Dana pointed out the yellow railroad sign placed just before you hit the entrance of Wildwater Kingdom. I acknowledged her observation, my mind buzzing with everything we had already discovered, and shrugged it off until a few moments later when I made the connection, slamming on the brakes.
“We have to go around again,” I told her. And we did, circling the park once more until we came back to the railroad sign, stopping the car beside it. There, barely visible beneath the grass that covered them, laid railroad tracks rusted as red as the autumn leaves surrounding us.
“Do you know what these are?” I asked Dana, nearly laughing. They were the tracks from 1856, back when the land was simply a railroad depot. “These are the entire reason Geauga Lake even existed in the first place,” I told her. I was awed more than I’d been all day. The rides were dismantled, the gates shut, the crowds long gone, but these tracks had survived it all.
Geauga Lake was a park expected to always be there. It lasted over a hundred years, so why not a hundred more? But these tracks made me realize how fast it had all happened – the park’s birth, growth, and death. The park had lived a life, and perhaps that’s what makes people so distraught over its end. Amusement parks are meant to be something bigger than us, but Geauga Lake had lived right beside us all, more human than we perhaps ever wanted to admit. One girl I spoke with described the park like a middle school summer. You think that it will last and last, but then you suddenly realize how fast something can disappear and how much time has vanished in the process of you growing up. You realize that things don’t last forever – that there’s always an expiration, and that even amusement parks aren’t as death-defying as we hope.
 From “More Than Just Being a Sentimental Fool: The Psychology of Nostalgia” by the Association for Psychological Science, 2008.